Interview: Karole Armitage dances with Marie Antoinette

By DEBRA CASH  |  August 31, 2012


Karole Armitage jettisoned her sobriquet as the "punk ballerina" years ago, but the Tony-nominated former Merce Cunningham dancer continues her edgy choreographic foray with her contributions to the upcoming world premiere of playwright David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette, a coproduction of the American Repertory Theater and the Yale Repertory Theatre.

HOW DID YOU COME TO BE TAPPED TO CHOREOGRAPH MARIE ANTOINETTE? Diane Paulus [executive director of the ART] brought me into it; I've worked with her several times, including Hair in three different versions, Tod Machover's opera Death and the Powers at MIT, and AmaLuna for Cirque du Soleil. She recommended me to [Marie Antoinette director] Rebecca Taichman.

WHAT APPEALED TO YOU ABOUT THE PROJECT? When I read the script it was bolt of lightening from the first page. David Adjmi has such a distinctive tone, I was just mesmerized. We're on the same wavelength: there's an existential attitude in the play. While we're both very comfortable with non-literalism, delighting in ambiguity and nuance, we're very comfortable with being very direct with each other in rehearsal.

MARIE ANTOINETTE IS HAVING QUITE A COMEBACK, WITH SOFIA COPPOLA'S 2006 FILM AND BENOÎT JACQUOT'S NEW FAREWELL, MY QUEEN. Marie Antoinette was the ingenue celebrity of her time. I believe that Sofia Coppola identified with her experience of living in a glass cage, wanting to be your own person, but kept from knowing much about reality. That, plus celebrity culture and the way we're fixated on it. Marie was so young, and so overwhelmed, and had so little free will.

IN 1985 YOU DECONSTRUCTED THE WORK OF FRENCH PAINTER JEAN-ANTOINE WATTEAU, WHO DIED ABOUT 30 YEARS BEFORE MARIE ANTOINETTE WAS BORN. YOU SEEM TO HAVE A REAL TASTE FOR SMASHING THE IDEALIZED VISION OF THE EUROPEAN BAROQUE. I never thought of that, but once you say that, there is no doubt that's true: the 18th century was a time when science and religion were in conflict, women's roles were being redefined, there was a struggle between the haves and have-nots — with the one percent having an incredible sense of entitlement. Democracy and elite culture were being defined. It's a kind of a mirror of today.

YOUR WORK TENDS TO BALANCE BETWEEN THE STRINGENCY OF CUNNINGHAM AND OVER-THE-TOP THEATRICALITY. If it's birds flying out of someone's hair and it brings delight to people, I'm all for it.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE FOR YOU BETWEEN WORKING WITH DANCERS AND WORKING WITH ACTORS? They're different endeavors. Actors process the way they move very differently from dancers. It's psychological and, dare I say, narrative-driven. I still have a dance company [Armitage Gone! Dance, based in New York], and I am working on four different projects scattered over the next couple of years. When you make the body the carrier of meanings — and are creating an elaborate, articulate vocabulary — that is the most exciting possible thing I can do.

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